THE DEMONSTRATIONS that erupted in Ukraine over the weekend are being compared to the 2004 Orange Revolution. They are directed at the same man: Viktor Yanukovych, who nine years ago was declared the winner of a rigged election and now has incited unrest by turning his back on an association agreement with the European Union. Ukraine, however, would not be well served by another revolution. What’s needed is a peaceful political process that respects the country’s constitution.
Both Ukraine and Mr. Yanukovych are not what they were in 2004. Then the country was governed by a corrupt autocracy, and Mr. Yanukovych was the beneficiary of Russian-orchestrated electoral fraud. Now he is a democratically elected president with 16 months left in his term. Though his abrupt decision to drop the E.U. pact, under heavy pressure from Russian President Vladimir Putin, is passionately opposed by much of his country, Mr. Yanukovych still enjoys considerable support.
His apparent reasons for abandoning the E.U. deal, which would have set the country on a course toward integration with the West, range from the politically expedient to the venal. He wished to avoid tough economic-austerity steps demanded by Western governments and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in exchange for desperately needed loans, and he wanted to preserve the fortune reportedly accumulated by his family while he has been in office. By turning to Mr. Putin, he hoped to win an easy bailout and end the squeeze Moscow was applying to Ukrainian exports.
Mr. Yanukovych’s other short-term goal is to win reelection in 2015. That’s why he rejected an E.U. demand that his chief opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, be released from prison. His supporters also passed a law stripping eligibility from another opposition leader, Vitali Klitschko.
A revolution is not the right response to this record. Demands by Mr. Klitschko and others for immediate presidential and parliamentary elections have questionable grounding in law. If Mr. Yanukovych is forced from power by street marches or other extra-constitutional means, Ukraine will be vulnerable to the endless turmoil that has afflicted other nations that removed elected leaders, including Thailand and Egypt. Europe’s insistence on democratic standards will look hollow, and Mr. Putin, who regards both the Orange Revolution and the current protests as a Western plot, will likely escalate his meddling.
The best solution to the crisis would be “roundtable” political negotiations between the government and the opposition, which also followed the 2004 revolt. That would give Mr. Yanukovych the opportunity to address the source of the unrest by agreeing to set a new date for a E.U. agreement. If the parliament passes a vote of no confidence in the current prime minister and cabinet, the president could appoint replacements. European governments could step up to offer Ukraine aid in meeting its looming financial obligations, provided it comes to terms with the IMF.
Ultimately, the way for Ukraine to settle the debate over its geopolitical orientation is through free elections. Opposition leaders should begin preparing to challenge Mr. Yanukovych and his followers next year — and Western governments should aim to ensure that the competition will be fair.